Cosmology is the study of the Universe and its components, how it formed,
how its has evolved and what is its future. Modern cosmology grew from
ideas before recorded history. Ancient man asked questions such as "What's
going on around me?" which then developed into "How does the Universe
work?", the key question that cosmology asks.
To religious studies, cosmology is about a theistically created world
ruled by supernatural forces. To scientists, cosmology is about a world
of controlled observations elucidated by natural forces. We will examine
the supernatural cosmologies throughout history, but we will primarily
explore the latter type of cosmology (naturalism) in this course.
Many of the earliest recorded scientific observations were about
cosmology, and pursuit of understanding has continued for over 5000 years.
Cosmology has exploded in the last 10 years with radically new information
about the structure, origin and evolution of the Universe obtained through
recent technological advances in telescopes and space observatories and
basically has become a search for the understanding of not only what makes
up the Universe (the objects within it) but also its overall
Modern cosmology is on the borderland between science and philosophy,
close to philosophy because it asks fundamental questions about the
Universe, close to science since it looks for answers in the form of
empirical understanding by observation and rational explanation.
Thus, theories about cosmology operate with a tension between a
philosophical urge for simplicity and a wish to include all the
Universe's features versus the total complexity of it all.
Cosmology is as old as humankind. Once primitive socal groups developed
language, it was a short step to making their first attempts to understand
the world around them. Very early cosmology, from Neolithic times of 20,000
to 100,000 years ago, was extremely local. The Universe was what you
immediately interacted with. Cosmological things were weather, earthquakes,
sharp changes in your environment, etc. Things outside your daily experience
appeared supernatural, and so we call this the time of Magic Cosmology.
Early people projected their own inner thoughts and feelings into an outer
animistic world, a world where everything was alive. Through prayers,
sacrifices and gifts to the spirits, human beings gained control of the
phenomena of their world. This is an anthropomorphic (magic) worldview, of the
living earth, water, wind and fire, into which men and women projected their
own emotions and motives as the guiding forces, the kind of world one finds
in fantasy and fairy tales.
Later in history, 5,000 to 20,000 years ago, humankind begins to organize
themselves and develop what we now call culture. A greater sense of permanence
in your daily existences leads to the development of myths, particularly
creation myths to explain the origin of the Universe.
Many of the myths still maintained supernatural themes, but there was an
internal logical consistence to many of the stories. The myths often attempt
a rational explanation of the everyday world. Even if we consider some of
the stories to be silly, they were, in some sense, our first scientific
theories. We call this the time of Mythical Cosmology.
Historians tend to exaggerate the capabilities of ancient Egyptians, when,
in fact, they were a practical culture. The development of cosmology in
ancient Egypt followed practical lines. Early man's impressions of the night
sky formulated into various myths which then later became the core of Egyptian
religion. Since its principal deities were heavenly bodies, a great deal of
effort was made by the priesthood to calculate and predict the time and place
of their god's appearances. These skills led to the division of the day and
night into twelve sections each, the development of a lunar calendar and
the development of a solar calendar of 12 30-day months with a special 5-day
unit to bring the total to 365 days.
Because the sun god, Ra, was the pre-eminent god, the annual solar motion
along the horizon was a key astronomical observation for the Egyptians. The
timing and position of the northernmost and southernmost turning points, the
solstices, ultimately fixed the mythology of Egyptian cosmology. Egyptian
legend declares that the sky goddess Nut gives birth to Ra once a year,
catalysing both calendar development and the concept of divine royalty plus
the matrilineal inheritance of the throne.
Nut is often portrayed as a naked female stretched across the sky. The Sun
(Ra) is shown entering her mouth, passing through her star speckled body and
emerging from her birth canal nine months later (from the spring equinox to
the winter solstice). Thus, Ra becomes a self-creating god, i.e. the Universe
is self-creating and eternal.
By the Old Kingdom, the astronomical/religious zeal of the pharaohs is reflected
in the construction of massive pyramids at Giza. Their shape reflects the
manner in which clouds and dust scatter sunlight into broad swaths forming
stairways to heaven. These were stone pathways to the gods and were oriented
to reach the immortal ones, i.e. the northern circumpolar stars.
Cosmology in Mesopotamia was much more sophisticated. Babylonians believed in
a six-level universe with three heavens and three earths: two heavens above
the sky, the heaven of the stars, the earth, the underground of the Apsu, and
the underworld of the dead. The Earth was created by the god Marduk as a
raft floating on the Apsu. The gods were divided into two pantheons, one
occupying the heavens and the other in the underworld.
Babylonian astronomy is noted for their detailed, and continuous, records of
astronomical phenomenon such as eclipses, positions of the planets and rise
and setting of the Moon. These records date back to 800 B.C. and are the
oldest scientific documents in existence. The purpose of this activity was
clearly astrological with the aim of forecasting the fortunes of the country
as well as of the king. In addition to records, Babylonian astronomers also
developed several arithmetic tools to aid in the prediction of eclipses and
planetary motion. However, while their record keeping was a novel technology
for the time, and their system of stellar names and measurement system was
passed onto later civilizations, the Babylonians never developed a cosmological
model in which to interpret their observations. Greek astronomers will
achieve this goal using the Babylonian data.
The third stage, what makes up the core of modern cosmology, grew out of
ancient Greek, later adopted by the Church. The underlying theme in Greek
science is the use of observation and experimentation to search for simple,
universal laws. We call this the time of Geometric Cosmology.
The struggle to formulation a Geometric Cosmology led to the development
of the biggest philosophical achievement of humankind, the philosophy of
science. Indirectly, through an examination of our myths and creation
stories, we developed the ideas and techniques that later would become the
core ideas to this thing we call science.
Central to Greek cosmology is the belief that the underlying order of the
Universe can be expressed in mathematical form lies at the heart of science
and is rarely questioned. But is mathematics a human invention or does it
have an independent existence?
Idealization of physical phenomenon led Plato to hypothesize that there were
two Universes, the physical world and an immaterial world of `forms',
perfect aspects of everyday things such as a table, bird, and
ideas/emotions, joy, action, etc. The objects and ideas in our material
world are `shadows' of the forms (see Plato's Allegory of the
Cave). This solves the problem of how objects in the material world
are all distinct (no two tables are exactly the same) yet they all have
`tableness' in common. There are different objects reflecting the
`tableness' from the Universe of Forms.
Thus, there came into existence two schools of thought.
One school is attributed to Plato, and finds that Nature is a
structure that is precisely governed by timeless mathematical laws.
According to Platonists we do not invent mathematical truths, we discover
them. The Platonic world exists and physical world is a shadow of the
truths in the Platonic world. This reasoning comes about when we realize
(through thought and experimentation) how the behavior of Nature follows
mathematics to an extremely high degree of accuracy. The deeper we probe
the laws of Nature, the more the physical world disappears and becomes a
world of pure math.
The other school held that mathematical concepts are mere idealizations of
our physical world. The world of absolutes, what is called the Platonic
world, has existence only through the physical world. In this case, the
mathematical world is the same as the Platonic world and would be thought
of as emerging from the world of physical objects.
Note that mathematics plays a key role in both worldviews. Mathematics
transcends the physical reality that confronts our senses. The fact that
mathematical theorems are discovered by several investigators indicates
some objective element to mathematical systems (supporting Plato's view).
But, since our brains have evolved to reflect the properties of the
physical world, it is of no surprise that we discover mathematical
relationships in Nature.
Both Plato and Pythagoras influenced the first logically consistent
cosmological worldview, developed by the Greeks in the 4th century B.C.
This early cosmology was an extrapolation of the Greek theory of matter
proposed by Empedocles. This theory states that all matter in the
Universe is composed of some combination of four elements: Earth, Water,
Fire, Air. These four elements arise from the working of the two
properties of hotness (and its contrary coldness) and dryness (and its
contrary wetness) upon an original unqualified or primitive matter. The
possible combinations of these two properties of primitive matter give
rise to the four elements or elemental forms.
Perhaps only a culture whose leaders were involved with logic and geometry
would put the concepts of chemistry in such a logical and geometric form.
Fire and Water are obvious opposites, and so are Earth and Air. These
opposites share no common properties. There are four properties, each
shared by two non-opposite elements: fire and air share the property of
hotness, water and air the property of wetness, and so on. Since the four
elements are two pairs of opposite elements, so also are the four
properties - hotness being the opposite of coldness and wetness the
opposite of dryness. Each of the four elements was held to exist in an
ideal pure form, which could not actually be found on earth. The real
things around us were considered impure, or mixed, forms of these four
ideal elements. Thus the different airs, or gases, were the form of air
mixed with different proportions of the forms of fire or water; smoke was
a mixture of the forms of air and earth with some of the form of fire
added. But there was an ideal or pure form of earth, air, fire, and water,
and the real ones which we see and use were not ideal but of lesser
purity. In other words, the real or observed different kinds of the same
element are due to different degrees of the same properties. The elements
could be changed into one another by removal of one property and addition
In a seemingly unrelated discovery, Euclid, a Greek mathematician,
proved that there are only five solid shapes that can be made from simple
polygons (the triangle, square and hexagon). Plato, strongly influenced by this
pure mathematical discovery, revised the four element theory with the
proposition that there were five elements to the Universe (earth, water,
air, fire and quintessence) in correspondence with the five regular
Elements had a natural tendency to separate in space; fire moved outwards,
away from the earth, and earth moved inwards, with air and water being
intermediate. Thus, each of these five elements occupied a unique place
in the heavens (earth elements were heavy and, therefore, low; fire
elements were light and located up high). Thus, Plato's system also
became one of the first cosmological models and looked something like the
Like any good scientific model, this one offers explanations and various
predictions. For example, hot air rises to reach the sphere of Fire, so
heated balloons go up. Note that this model also predicts some incorrect
things, such as all the planets revolve around the Earth, called the geocentric theory. The
geocentric cosmology becomes the first of many anthropocentric universes,
ones where humankind's special nature in the animal world leads to the idea
that the Universe is designed for us, or by us.